OREM — Utah Valley head wrestling coach Greg Williams, now in his 10th year at the helm of the Wolverine program, has high expectations for his grapplers as they compete at the NCAA wrestling tournament this weekend in Pittsburgh. Williams is quite candid in the team's goals going into the biggest meet of the season.
“To get where we want to go as a program, we have to put people on the podium, and multiple guys,” Williams said.
The program qualified a school record six wrestlers to the nationals. All six were seeded in the top 20 as 33 wrestlers compete in each of the 10 weight classes that college wrestling sponsors. It should be noted that the Wolverines did all of this missing its top returning wrestler, Taylor LaMont, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. LaMont was one match away last season from placing in the top eight and earning All-American status.
Utah Valley's contingent of qualifiers include Matt Findlay (141 pounds), Demetrius Romero (165 pounds), Kimball Bastian (174 pounds), Will Sumner (184 pounds), Tanner Orndorff (197 pounds) and Tate Orndorff (285 pounds).
The wrestling program was established in 2001 shortly after BYU dropped its program. Utah Valley is the only college or university in the Beehive State to currently have a wrestling program. If the program can place in the top 20 at nationals and put multiple wrestlers on the program, it could signal that a new era in the program has arrived.
The school spent several years in a trial phase with the NCAA, meaning that the program could compete against other institutions but was not allowed to compete in conference or national championship tournaments. This was a big obstacle because it hindered the program significantly from recruiting blue-chip athletes even within the state. Once that period ended in 2010, Utah Valley was able to make substantial progress and attract better wrestlers both inside and outside the state of Utah.
"We're competing against the Big Ten and Big 12 now in our recruiting," said Williams. "There are some that really like our program, like our coaches, like our team but they want that legacy, they want that brand."
Williams knows that creating that legacy or brand comes from consistently putting wrestlers on the podium and finishing in the top 20 as a team.
There is plenty of local talent in the 30 or so wrestlers that make up the Utah Valley roster, but four of the six wrestlers that qualified for nationals actually competed outside of Utah in their high school careers. That doesn't signal that prep wrestling inside of Utah is lacking, but it does show that Utah Valley wrestling has reached a higher level in both talent and expectations. While the Beehive State has excellent wrestling talent, especially relative to its population, the program won't reach its full potential just competing with local wrestlers.
Utah Valley did profit when Boise State dropped its program as Romero had competed in the Bronco program previous to coming to Utah Valley. Findlay, an Alta High School product, had also signed at Boise State but decided to transfer to Utah Valley during his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. At that time, Boise State's program was in turmoil.
"I signed at Boise State and then I went on a mission," Findlay said. "I didn't feel good about what was going on in the program. They fired the coaches. Then I started dating this girl (who later became his wife) and (coach) Greg Williams and I started emailing each other. I just felt coming to Utah Valley was what I needed to do."
Unlike Findlay, Romero was actually wrestling for the Broncos when the Boise State administration decided to drop the program. Romero prepped in Idaho and initially signed at Boise State to be closer to family. But in the initial recruiting process, Utah Valley was his second choice and a logical fit when things collapsed at Boise. He credited a close relationship with Utah Valley assistant coach Ethen Lofthouse in sealing the deal on getting him to come to Utah Valley to finish his college wrestling career.
"Utah Valley has a really good coaching staff," said Romero. "Coach (Ethen) Lofthouse is the biggest reason I came to UVU. I really liked the atmosphere here."
Romero, seeded ninth, sports a 28-3 overall record and on paper is Utah Valley's best shot to land an All-American. But Romero knows that the route will be tough but in his second trip to the nationals he hopes not to be too awed by the atmosphere.
"Every match (at nationals) is a hard match," he said. "That is my mindset. It's way different (the nationals). It's a sold-out arena, but I won't shellshocked by it."
The good news about both Findlay and Romero is both are returning as they are a sophomore and junior in eligibility respectively.
Tate and Tanner Orndorff are brothers that prepped in Washington. Tanner is a senior and competing in his third nationals, while Tate is a freshman thus making his debut.
The younger Orndorff said his brother's only advice was to treat the nationals "just like any other tournament."
Both Orndorffs are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Though Tanner Orndorff was already at the Utah Valley program, Tate had signed at Oregon State, but while on his mission the younger Orndorff had a change of heart.
"After I served a mission, I decided that (Utah Valley) was the best place for me," Tate Orndoff said. "I trusted Tanner because he was having a good experience."
Tate sports a 24-7 overall record and will be the 15th seed at 285 pounds, while Tanner will be the 19th seed with his 18-12 mark.
As far as Sumner, he wrestled in California and, like his teammates, felt that Utah Valley was the place for a variety of reasons.
"I really like area. I grew up in Northern California in an outdoors environment. I love Utah," said Sumner. "I really liked how close the team was and how close the coaches were with the team."
Sumner is a senior making his first appearance at the NCAA tournament. Sumner earned the 20th seed with his 21-11 overall mark. He credits his father for much of his wrestling success.
"He's been there with me every step of the way. He's a big part of this," Sumner said of his father, Gary, who did all he could to give the Wolverine grappler competitive experiences since his youth.
Kimball Bastian is the 14th seed in his weight and goes into the nationals with an 18-10 record. Bastian, a junior, is making his second appearance at nationals. His approach to the tournament is a bit different than some of his teammates.
“I’m going to soak in the atmosphere and have some fun,” Bastian said. “I want to tap into the energy of that arena.”
Like Findlay, Bastian prepped in Utah, but at Maple Mountain High.
The NCAA wrestling tournament will have some Utah connections outside of the Wolverine program.
Branson Ashworth, who attended Spanish Fork High School winning three state titles, is the No. 10 seed at 165 pounds wrestling for the University of Wyoming.Comment on this story
And of course former Wasatch High wrestling legend Cael Sanderson remains at the helm of Penn State, which is seeking its eighth title in nine years. Sanderson is the only undefeated wrestler in the history of college wrestling and an Olympic gold medalist. His older brother Cody, who was actually the inaugural coach of the Utah Valley wresting program, serves as an assistant coach in the Nittany Lion program. Penn State, with six wrestlers nailing down first or second seeds, are the prohibitive favorite to win team honors.
The tournament will start Thursday and continue through Saturday. ESPN will cover much of the action.